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World’s Christians usher in a second pandemic Christmas, as Omicron rages

COVID-19 again disrupts holiday, with flights grounded and church services canceled, but gatherings are easier than last year and billions still manage to celebrate

  • Priests and clergy walk in a procession to attend the Christmas celebration midnight Mass at the Cathedral-Basilical in Vilnius, Lithuania, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
    Priests and clergy walk in a procession to attend the Christmas celebration midnight Mass at the Cathedral-Basilical in Vilnius, Lithuania, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
  • Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Bethlehem pray during a Christmas Eve mass at the Beit Jamal Monastery near Beit Shemesh, Israel, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Bethlehem pray during a Christmas Eve mass at the Beit Jamal Monastery near Beit Shemesh, Israel, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • Aquarist Volmer Salvador swims inside a tank at the AquaRio aquarium dressed in a Santa Claus costume during the Christmas season in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)
    Aquarist Volmer Salvador swims inside a tank at the AquaRio aquarium dressed in a Santa Claus costume during the Christmas season in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)
  • Dressed as Santa Claus, Washington Gularte greets beach goers leaving Ramirez beach on Christmas Eve in Montevideo, Uruguay, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
    Dressed as Santa Claus, Washington Gularte greets beach goers leaving Ramirez beach on Christmas Eve in Montevideo, Uruguay, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
  • A police officer stands guard at St. Anthony's Church as Christians arrive to attend midnight Christmas mass, in Lahore, Pakistan, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
    A police officer stands guard at St. Anthony's Church as Christians arrive to attend midnight Christmas mass, in Lahore, Pakistan, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
  • Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass, at St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
    Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass, at St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
  • An Iraqi Christian woman lights candles during a Christmas Eve Mass in St. Teresa's Church ahead of Christmas celebrations, in Basra, Iraq, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
    An Iraqi Christian woman lights candles during a Christmas Eve Mass in St. Teresa's Church ahead of Christmas celebrations, in Basra, Iraq, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
  • People walk past an illuminated church ahead of Christmas in Ahmedabad, India, December 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
    People walk past an illuminated church ahead of Christmas in Ahmedabad, India, December 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
  • Hospital workers place gifts under a Christmas tree in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
    Hospital workers place gifts under a Christmas tree in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
  • Christians hold candles during a celebration for Christmas, in Lahore, Pakistan, December 22, 2021. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
    Christians hold candles during a celebration for Christmas, in Lahore, Pakistan, December 22, 2021. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Billions of Christians ushered in a second Christmas under the pall of the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday.

The surging Omicron virus variant disrupted travel plans worldwide, prompted churches to close their doors and tamped down holiday spirits.

Airlines canceled over 4,000 flights on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on Saturday as pilots, flight attendants and other staff were infected or forced into quarantine.

Israel and other countries closed borders to stem the spread of the highly-infectious variant, hindering celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, believed to be Jesus’s birthplace, for the second consecutive year.

In New York, lines stretched around the block as people sought out tests for COVID-19, and a wave of storms forced evacuations on the US West Coast, capping a year of extreme weather in the region.

People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

US churches, including Washington National Cathedral and the historic South Church in Boston, canceled in-person services, while others planned outdoor celebrations. The US is averaging around 1,150 COVID-19 deaths per day.

European countries reimposed restrictions, including lockdowns in the Netherlands and outdoor mask mandates in Spain and Italy. France and the UK both notched record numbers of new cases on consecutive days.

It was not all doom and gloom, though, as Christmas gatherings were easier than a year ago, before widespread vaccinations.

The Pope held a traditional Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, albeit with a masked and scaled-down crowd of 2,000 worshipers.

Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass, at St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Israelis crowded into the northern city of Nazareth, where Christians believe Jesus lived, for a cheery holiday procession. Drummers, bagpipers and scouts paraded in Bethlehem despite the scant crowds.

Bearded Santa Clauses dispensed gifts in Iraq, greeted shirtless beachgoers in Uruguay, swam in a Brazilian aquarium and cheered on NBA players in the US.

In the US, President Joe Biden attended First Lady Jill Biden’s book reading at a children’s hospital in Washington, the first time a president attended the traditional holiday reading with his spouse.

An Iraqi man dressed as Santa Claus hands out gifts to children in a poor residential neighborhood in Basra, Iraq, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Bethlehem pray during a Christmas Eve mass at the Beit Jamal Monastery near Beit Shemesh, Israel, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Aquarist Volmer Salvador swims inside a tank at the AquaRio aquarium dressed in a Santa Claus costume during the Christmas season in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)
An Iraqi Christian woman lights candles during a Christmas Eve Mass in St. Teresa’s Church ahead of Christmas celebrations, in Basra, Iraq, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
A police officer stands guard at St. Anthony’s Church as Christians arrive to attend midnight Christmas mass, in Lahore, Pakistan, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
The Minnesota Timberwolves play against the Utah Jazz in an NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Egan)
Pedestrians walk past a man wearing a Santa Claus costume in front of the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
A patient at reads “Olaf’s Night Before Christmas” with first lady Jill Biden as US President Joe Biden listens at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A soldier tracks Santa on his sleigh on Christmas evening at the Canadian Forces Base in North Bay on December 9, 2021. (Sable Brown/NORAD via AP)
Hospital workers place gifts under a Christmas tree in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
Dressed as Santa Claus, Washington Gularte greets beach goers leaving Ramirez beach on Christmas Eve in Montevideo, Uruguay, December 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
Palestinian scouts parade outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
People visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Mahouts and their elephants pose for children during Christmas celebrations at the Jirasart Witthaya school in Ayutthaya, Thailand, December 24, 2021. (Jack Taylor/AFP)
A man dressed as Santa Claus hugs children during a Christmas meal distribution a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 23, 2021 (Daniel Ramalho/AFP)
People take pictures around a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

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